If you’re like me, you probably never gave the inclusion of social media sharing buttons on web sites a second thought. Facilitating an ease of sharing can only be a good thing, right? And surely their presence automatically helps increase online exposure and audience engagement? Not everyone agrees.
A couple of recent articles on the subject, one by the fabulous Paul Boag and one by my man-crush-of-the-month, Oliver Reichenstein (if you don’t know who IA are, just check your walls – chances are you’ll have one of their posters on it), highlight some of the plights that just plonking sharing buttons on your site without thought can bring along with asking that most sacred of questions: “do they really work?”. Contrary to popular believe, it’s surprisingly hard to get any decent stats on the subject.
Sharing not caring
In a war of convenience and appealing to the lowest barrier to entry possible, one would have thought that placing social widgets on a site was an obvious necessity. Apparently this isn’t the case though and some say that the effect of social media sharing is starting to become so diminished that clicking a ubiquitous Facebook ‘like’ button, or similar, does nothing more than stroke the ego of the content producer and satisfy the itch of user to share with it their friends, the same friends who likely won’t even notice the automated share as their trawl through streams of constant updates.
I can’t say that I’m completely convinced by this argument but I can appreciate how the use of automated sharing buttons potentially creates a far more impersonal, less impactful social media presence. Surely it’s more beneficial if a user actually takes the time to copy and paste a link, sharing it in their social network of choice with a few fine words of glowing compliments to go with it? Funnily enough, Smashing Magazine found exactly this and noticed that by removing their Facebook buttons from their site their traffic from FB increased because suddenly people were actually sharing it manually on their timeline rather than just creating indistinguishable white noise.
“We removed FB buttons and traffic from Facebook increased. Reason: instead of ‘liking’ articles, readers share it on their timeline.”
It makes sense. No one is saying that social media shouldn’t be used or even that it’s not a fantastic way to disseminate information (cause, y’know, it is) but there does seem to be an idea stirring that these bloated, spying icons we see so frequently bring nothing more to the table than a false sense of convenience and satisfaction, the reality being that if someone really wanted to share your content they would, icons be damned. Of course, you will likely end up with fewer shares as a result but the click-through-rate and amount of genuine interest you receive should, in theory, go up because the word is being spread in an authentic and caring manner.
Indeed, when you look at it all in this light it does seem like there is quite a compelling case to stop cluttering up our lovely sites, stop catering to people who won’t even take the time to share a link manually and get back to the basics of focusing on content above all else.
And then Google steps in.
The Google factor
It’s well established that the Overlords and Police of the Internet (you may know them as Google) take a great interest in social networking and it’s been pretty much conclusively proved that social media plays a reasonable part in the search engine rankings of a web page. The more a page is shared via social media, the higher it will rank and, whilst perhaps a little self-defeating (the popular just become more popular), it is a strategy that makes perfect sense in the context of search engine competition rankings.
Although it’s still early day for Google + and the full effects of the +1 button are still being explored, it does stand to reason that the more people you can get to share your site, on any social networking platform possible, the better. Google doesn’t care about the ‘quality’ of the share, all they care about the cold hard numbers and the amount of people that have retweeted, liked or +1′d your link, a pretty contrary point of view to the philosophy described above.
Indeed, in a cold and calculating search engine world, it seems that the more people you can enticing into click those social media sharing buttons, by whatever means necessary, the better.
Stuck in the middle
Unfortunately it’s impossible to find any conclusive data on the subject yet and, I must confess, the whole discussion leaves me feeling a tad bewildered. Whilst we use social media sharing widgets on this blog, we don’t use them on our main company site and I’d be hard pushed to say what the tangible advantages or disadvantages of either approach are at the end of the day. Yes, we’ve had accrued plenty of interest via social media but whether or not that’s been through people clicking on standardised sharing widgets or manually spreading the page links with their own personal recommendation, I couldn’t say.
I suppose if I was pressed to make a decision then I’d chicken out from the puritan philosophy (I’m brave like that) and keep the buttons on our blog just to play it safe. But then maybe that’s what everyone’s doing and why we have no real data on the subject – perhaps it is time to throw caution to the wind, remove those bloated sharing widgets and see what our search engine presence is like without it.
Hit the buttons below if you agree.